As part of my thesis research, I am studying formal and informal channels of sex education. A major section of this article discusses the laws and requirements around sex ed in Ohio, purely because I’m currently located here and I chose to situate the project in my immediate surrounding. However, a comparative analysis is drawn nationally across different states as well.
The findings clearly establish the extraneous nature of sex ed and the loopholes in professing ‘Abstinence only’. The curricula are highly dependent on the discretion of the local committees which often fail in identifying the needs of their students resulting in extremely high rates of teen pregnancies, HIV and STIs among adolescents. Parents also play a vital role, as sex ed is the only subject which can be opted out of, if the parents advice against it. In combination, these factors result in poor sexual health and require a thorough revision of the curriculum as proposed by many recent bills.
Ohio does not require schools to teach sexuality education. However, the board of education of each school district must establish a health curriculum for all schools under their legislation. The health education curriculum, last revised in 2011, must include venereal disease education, which must emphasize that ‘abstinence from sexual activity is the only protection that is one hundred per cent effective against unwanted pregnancy, sexually transmitted disease, and the sexual transmission of a virus that causes acquired immunodeficiency syndrome.’ (Board of Education, 2001). This paper analyzes the Education, Health Education and Sexuality Education curricula and elaborates on the subjective requirements that result in varied and often ineffective sexual health curriculum at schools.
The paper presents the multi-faceted challenges the local districts are facing in designing school curricula vis a vis access to guidelines, the amount of research expected to be done toward age and community appropriation and also the outcome being extraneous to the graduation requirements.
Altogether these factors result in poor support for decision- makers who are a committee of teachers, parents and less frequently health educators. The fact that they are not barred from teaching religious values often leads to community religious leaders guiding these decisions as well. Overall, the combination of these variables in adapting to a district-wide curriculum is de-standardizing what students learn and when they learn it, with regards to their sexual health.
Current state of sex education in Ohio
Ohio has no model curriculum for sex education, leaving decisions up to local education committees assembled for this planning. The adapted curricula can be classified into three categories: abstinence-centered (or abstinence-only until marriage), abstinence-plus and comprehensive. Abstinence-centred curricula teach that abstinence is the only effective method of avoiding sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and unplanned pregnancies, while abstinence-plus curricula emphasize abstinence, but provide information about contraceptives and STDs. Comprehensive curricula may cover abstinence, but have a greater focus on contraceptives, STDs and pregnancy prevention.
Even with the given guidelines, designing a sex education curriculum can be a challenging task, considering each local school district is left to prioritize subject matter based on time and their own resources. Adding to these differences in content, schools also have the autonomy to decide at what age to teach a certain topic. In Ohio, many schools do not start teaching sex education until high school, but some start exploring the human body and sexuality in third grade (Gregory, Dennis, and Tucker, 2015). So the advancement in topics and when they are taught is determined by where the child goes to school.
The prescribed education curriculum and learning objectives are readily available on the Ohio Department of Education website. This education curriculum governs the health education content including sex education, which is listed as one of the sub-subpoints in the education curriculum. The health education curriculum as well was retrieved from the Ohio Department of Education website, split into three sections between K-12. These legislated requirements were still a broader guideline for health education in general, with sexual health being a sub-point. The 9–12 curriculum cited a more detailed legislature about ‘Instruction in venereal disease education emphasizing abstinence’. Similarly, each document’s references led to a compilation of many provisions and sections of the Ohio Revised Code that are intended to be referenced together during the design of sexuality education curricula. The content of these documents was analyzed in a group workshop to code the guidelines on their level of specificity, validity and clarity.
In addition to the current legislatures, I also analyzed recent House Bills regarding sex education, as introduced to the committee awaiting review. These were retrieved from the online public-access library called The Ohio Legislature. This public resource also shares the status of the bills, with a frequently updated vote count. Hence, I was able to contextualize the bills based on their authors and their legal standing.
1. Local discretion and room for interpretation
The health education curriculum requirements are divided into three sections, K-6, 7–8 and 9–12. The sexuality education guidelines are one of up to seven topics. The prescribed requirements in kindergarten through six introduce personal safety and assault prevention, with the addition of venereal disease education and dating violence in 7–8 that is continued on to 9–12 as well. Curricula are meant to be the planned content, materials, resources and activities used to meet educational objectives for students (3313.60 Curriculum, 2001). The ambiguity of the legislated requirements seems insufficient to design a curriculum that empowers student’s to take control of their sexual health. Each section of the requirement document has a disclaimer stating ‘districts should consider age-appropriate content and develop their own curriculum based on the needs of their students and community’ (Ohio Department of Education, 2019). It is unclear what is considered age-appropriate and gives total discretion to the local schools to design the curriculum based on how they gauge the needs of their students.
2. Selective mandatory information
In the midst of the ambiguity of the curriculum requirements highlighted in the previous section, there are 34 states that place some requirements on local districts, often by including specific topics on a list of subjects that must be taught, or by requiring that it be stressed. The preferences emerging from these specific topics are clear: All 34 of these states require that abstinence be taught, with nine requiring that it be covered and 25 insisting that it be stressed. In sharp contrast, 19 states require that contraception be covered in sexuality education or STD education, but none requires that it be stressed (Gold and Nash 2001). These teachings have continually and pragmatically not been followed by a large number of the students. In 2011–2015, 42.4% of never-married female teenagers (4.0 million) and 44.2% of never-married male teenagers (4.4 million) had had sexual intercourse at least once by the end of high-school (Abma and Martinez 2017).
Section 3313.6011 of the Ohio health education curriculum defines sexual activity as sexual contact as well as sexual conduct, encompasses touching any erogenous zone (thigh, buttocks, genitals, etc.) to vaginal penetration. It further specifies the instructions should stress the potential physical, psychological, emotional and social side effects of participating in sexual activity outside of marriage. There is a repeated mention of the consequences and responsibilities of unintended pregnancies and its ‘possible hazards’. Effective since 2001, this section has 7 guidelines, all directed at advising against sexual activity out of wedlock. Abstinence is stated as the only method of protection that is mandated in this curriculum.
3. The extraneous status of sex education
3.1 Tedious processes
The lengthy process of retrieving the sex education curriculum requirements itself was evidence that it is currently not a state priority. While the education curriculum is readily available on the Ohio Department of Education website, the sex education guidelines are a fractional component of the Health Education Curriculum which is a sub-subpoint in the Education curriculum. Moreover, sexual education programs taught in Ohio schools are required to stress abstinence-only before marriage and are not obligated to include any information about contraception, sexual orientation, avoiding coercion in intimate relationships, family communication, or healthy decision making (Boyer 2018).
3.2. Opt-out policy
Another attribute that is common only to the sexual health guidelines is the option for parents to decide if their child will receive sex education or not. (Prescribed Curriculum, 2001). This is the sole section of the curriculum that can be opted-out of. On a national level, thirty-three states have the ‘opt-out’ policy, which gives parents the option to withdraw their children from these classes. Three states go further, requiring that parents affirmatively provide consent before a child may participate in the instruction. One state, Arizona, has separate parental discretion policies for sexuality education and STD education, requiring parental consent for the former while having an opt-out policy for the latter (Gold and Nash 2001).
3.3. State-wide focus shift
This deprioritization of sexuality education could be a threat to the overall health of the population when viewed in the light of teen pregnancy rates in Ohio. Ohio ranked 24 out of 51 (50 states plus the District of Columbia) on final 2016 teen birth rates among females ages 15–19 (Office of Adolescent Health, 2016). However, the 2019 annual state-wide priority in student health is Opioid Abuse Prevention, owing to the current ranking of Ohio as the second highest rate of drug overdose deaths involving opioids in the U.S. (National Institute of Drug Abuse, 2019). The threat is also minimized by the exponentially dropping rates of teen pregnancy in Ohio. From 1991 to 2016, there has been a -64 per cent decline in teen pregnancy rates (Office of Adolescent Health, 2016). Nonetheless, teen sexual health is immensely impacted by formal sex education and its extraneous status in the education curriculum plays a crucial role in the current state of adolescent health in Ohio.
3.4. Graduation requirements
Students in 9–12 grades have to meet the graduation requirements for a minimum of 20 credits to earn a high school diploma in Ohio. The requirements for health education are at the lowest of all subjects, at a minimum of 1⁄2 credit as of 2019. It is specified the one- half unit shall include instruction in nutrition and the benefits of nutritious foods and physical activity for overall health (Anon 2019a).
This means that even if health education teaches sexual safety and contraception, students are not required to score credits on those topics to be able to graduate. This further illustrates the extraneity of sexuality education learning objectives, resulting in poor adolescent health.
Summary and Conclusions
This paper took into consideration the current state of laws around sexuality education along with predicted trends of sexual health to analyze the requirements laid down by the Ohio Board of Education. The interpretive nature of the language in the documents highlighted the challenges in adapting it for each local district. The decision-making committees have the discretion to include and exclude topics they deem suitable for the age and community, as there are only a few mandatory topics. The most stressed mandate in Ohio is Abstinence only until marriage and is being continuously disregarded by the students, resulting in high rates of teen pregnancies and STD infections. However, this rate is on the decline due to several generation-specific attributes like increased accountability and mobility on topics such as sexual assault (like the Me Too movement). The process of adapting the curriculum for different districts is poorly structured with hindrances at each step. The process is tedious, subjective and leaves room for interpretation that is rendering sexual education at school insufficient and unrealizable.
The documents themselves portray an extraneous image of the sex education curriculum, by deprioritizing it. Moreover, as compared to all the other subjects, the graduation requirement for sex education is the lowest with no lower limit for topics like contraception. The opt-out policy is also solely designed for sexual education and is not applicable to any other subject. Overall, the curriculum requirements along with antiquated legislation policies seem to be mystifying and complicating the process for educators that use these documents to design school curricula. This is highly in contrast to the specificity and detailed descriptions of curricula for other subjects that are relatively objective. As adopted by many private schools, comprehensive sex education is being pushed into legislation by several house bills pending approval. The outcomes of comprehensive sex education are being measured in other states, and shall hopefully soon guide Ohio’s adolescent healthcare and education.
3313.6011. 2001. Instruction in Venereal Disease Education Emphasizing Abstinence. Abma, Joyce C. and Gladys M. Martinez. 2017. Sexual Activity and Contraceptive Use Among Teenagers in the United States, 2011–2015.
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Anon. 2019a. Complete Courses and Requirements.
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